"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." - George Orwell

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Nostalgia for a Dictator? 

One of the things that most perplexes Americans is the tendancy of some of those who once lived under totalitarian rule, and now live under at least some freedom, to express nostalgia for the ancien regime.

Consider two stories that were in the news recently. The first one is in today's Washington Times:
"Life has changed for the worse," said Bushra Mahmoud, 40, a mother of three who was sitting in the waiting area. "There is a creeping zealousness among men and women that is really frightening. You sit on the bus and have abuse heaped on you by the fanatics because you are not wearing the hijab [Islamic head covering]. These things never used to happen."

Intimidation of women for religious reasons has become more common in the past year, and those who do not cover themselves are often the targets of kidnappers. Salons have been bombed and the Princess Salon's chief stylist, Nazar Zadayan, says he has been threatened several times.
They go on to point out that the situation for women is better in Afghanistan, where women can take off their burkas without fear. Too many religious conservatives were elected to the new legislative body in Iraq, however. While many women ran for office, only those with conservative values were elected.

The second is about Putin's recent remarks about the "glory days" of the Soviet Union (hat tip Amy Ridenour):
Russian President Vladimir Putin told the nation Monday that the collapse of the Soviet empire "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" and had fostered separatist movements inside Russia.

In his annual state of the nation address to parliament and the country's top political leaders, Putin said the Soviet collapse was "a genuine tragedy" for Russians.

"First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," Putin said. "As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.

Such words are shocking to the majority of westerners. No matter the situation in Russia, how could anyone long for the Soviet Union? Does he not remember Stalin's terror?

I do not doubt that the fears expressed by the Iraqi women are well founded. When a country has been kept under the heal of a dictator for so long, all sorts of tensions are kept underground. Ancient hatreds and prejudices do not go away, they are simply put on hold. And when the dictatorship is removed, they spring to the surface.

It has been said by many that democracy is about more than holding elections. That has never been better illustrated by the stories above.

The German Experience

Perhaps the most famous example of a people longing for a authoritarian past and rejecting democracy occurred in Germany during the 1920's. To the modern mind, it would seem obvious that the Weimar Republic was better than Prussian militarism. Yet consider the hyperinflation that struck Germany during the early days of the Weimar Republic
(Nazi Germany: A New History, by Klaus Fischer):
Germans were caught in a vortex from which there seemed no escape. the world was upside-down: a simple penny postage stamp cost 5 million marks, an egg 80 million, a pound of meat 3.2 biullion, a pound of butter 6 billion, a pound of potatoes 50 million, a glass of beer 150 million. Prices changed from day to day, prompting people to rush to the stores armed with satchels of worthless money to buy simple necessities.

To many Germans this period seemed like an economic apocalypse....We might also add that it also seemed like the end of faith in government, its good word, and its assurance that the savings of ordinary citizens would be protected.....The savings of thrifty middle-class Germans was wiped out. It was not uncommom for German savers to receive polite letters from bank managers informing them that "the bank deeply regrets that it can on longer administer your deposit of sixty-eight thousand marks, since the costs are all out of proportion to the capital. We are therefore taking the liberty of returning your capital. Since we have no bank-notes of small enough denominations at our disposal, we have rounded out the sum to one million marks. Enclusure: one 1,000,000 mark bill." To add insult to injury, the envelope was adorned by a canceled five million mark postage stamp.
It's not a wonder why people became Nazis.

The government literally was forced to take back small denomination bills and print extra zeroes on them, and them reissue them.

A Sailor's Story

When I was in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1993, one of the sights we visited was the cruiser Aurora. After paying our fee and going onboard the ship, we were met by an old man who, in passable English, offered to take us on a tour of the vessle. Knowledgeable by now as to the ways of Russia, we realized that he was not an official tourguide but just someone who wanted to make a few extra dollars by taking westerners on tours. We agreed and he did a fine job.

As always, we made it a habit to ask the people we met about their backgrounds and their opinions of various matters. We found out that this man had been a captain in the Soviet Navy but had retired several years ago, when the country was still the Soviet Union. His pension had been wiped out by inflation, and he depended on tips from westerners to make his living. He apparently talked the officials into letting him on board to do this, probably in return for a percentage of his tips. We had encountered this situation several times before and, given the man's knowledge of naval matters, had no reason to doubt his story. We gave him something like a ten dollar tip, which was an enormous sum of money in their economy.

Given this and other stories we've all heard about Russia, is it a wonder some people say that they long for the days of Stalin? There is something in us that longs for stability and predictability. And when it seems like the world is falling apart,

Nostalgia for a Dictator?

So do the people in the stories above truely long to be ruled by a dictator? I don't think so. I think it's more a desperation that comes from living in difficult and uncertain times. The Iraqi women do have good reasons to be afraid. The Russians do have cause to bemoan their reduced status in the world. The Germans of eighty years ago did have reason to think their world had turned upside down.

It's all too easy for us in the West to talk highly of freedom and democracy, when even our Great Depression was fairly mild compared to the situations described above. Success in Iraq and Afghanistan depends as much on security and the economy as it does on elections and establishment of a representative government.

Democracy is about a way of thinking, a means of peacefully resolving conflict within society. It is the establishment of common law, of civil society, of all those things that we take for granted but which takes centuries to get right, if ever at all.

So we mustn't be overly upset when we read about a people longing for days when they were ruled by a tyrant. We should take it as a warning, as a message that we have a lot of work to do. But I'm not really worried that we don't take this seriously in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of the hallmarks of American liberation, from the Marshall Plan in Europe, to MacArthur's administration of Japan after World War II, to our liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, has been our willingness to spend billions on reconstruction. That some on the left do not seem to recognize the importance of this investment must not disuade us from our task. We can only lose this War on Terror if we want to. |
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